Anatomy of a menu overhaul

When you’re a deep dish pizza pub editing your offerings in the time of hyperactive health legislation, what do you put on your menu?

Deep dish pizza, of course.

In May, casual pizza-pub chain Old Chicago announced it would undergo the biggest menu overhaul the brand had seen in more than half a decade, adding or tweaking roughly 30 menu items. The new menus would be rolled out to 100 systemwide stores over the course of the first two weeks in June.

Par for the course? Not when you’re revising in a time when pizza has come under special scrutiny: Celeb chef Jamie Oliver has a food show practically dedicated to fatty foods' eradication, and voices in medical journals have called for a pizza tax. And not when menu labeling threatens to display the 1,000-plus calorie content of your bread and butter to your faithful following.

But final edits show that Old Chicago’s leaders haven’t second-guessed the items that helped them earn $304 million in sales last year – deep dish or otherwise. Here is the brand leaders plan to stay true to their niche: updating core offerings and engineering some healthier ones that “stand on their own flavor merits.”

The strategy

Luckily, this is not the first time Mike Thom, Old Chicago director of culinary research and development, has come up against dire health dictates. The company’s last menu overhaul occurred in October 2004 at the height of the Atkins Diet craze. Thom said the brand had engineered more healthy, carb-conscious items in response, but with a more far-sighted goal than pandering to diet fads. Above all, the craze provided an excuse to address one of the brand’s shortcomings: A lack of menu variety for the deep-dish centric concept. 

“We made bun-less burgers and low-carb wraps,” Thom said. But the more sustainable change was the addition of stromboli, which fit well with the Old Chicago brand. They also added thin crust pizza, which allowed for personalization in one-person serving sizes.

This time around, the R&D goals were different. “We wanted to streamline the menu and make it easier for the staff to execute every time,” Thom said. That involved removing 22 items, revising 13 and adding 17 new ones.

“The items that we deleted were generally the lesser selling ones that appealed to a small number of guests,” Thom said. “As it turns out, many of those items were higher in calories. However, some were on the healthier side also: the Caprese Pizza, turkey burger, Chicken Rustica and Caprese Salad.”

The ingredients

Alternately, much of the new version focuses on the restaurant’s most famous category: calzones. Three new offerings in this category include Hot Texican Beef, Monterey Chicken and Italian Grinder. Beyond the new flavors, they also get crowning jewels – literally. Each is topped with accoutrements such as salsa, guacamole or dressing, a new presentation for the brand.

“Normally all the ingredients go inside, but this particular menu rollout, we decided to kind of tailor some toppings outside to really refresh the calzone category,” Thom said.

To be sure, these calzones aren’t health food, but their spicy flavor profile is a theme that spreads throughout the menu revision: A blackened chicken wrap with Cajun spices. Thai steak wrap with sweet-spicy Thai chili sauce. Buffalo chicken rolls. Thom said such flavor profiles are a subtle nod to the increasingly health-minded culture.

“When we looked at what we were taking off, we asked what could we replace it with that had fewer calories and bigger flavor profiles,” he said. 

They went after their burger line and some sandwiches with this in mind. Tired turkey burgers got replaced with better-for-you chicken sandwiches. And after the R&D crew realized how well chicken wraps did, they decided on two new variations – blackened, which adds flavor without calories, and that hot Thai steak wrap.

Thom is confident that the makeover has been a stealth spruce-up, and not a botched operation. Newer items in categories such as calzones, the an updated buffalo roll, and popular mini desserts help keep the “Old” refreshed in Old Chicago. 

“We will always keep lower-calorie/healthy items on our menu, but they will be placed within the normal menu categories – flavor wise, they will always stand on their own merits,” he said. 

The other half

Old Chicago is an anomaly in the pizza world in that 40 percent of its sales come from liquor. The concept, bought by Rock Bottom Brewery, offers 110 unique cold beers, and is home of the "World Beer Tour” that features brews from around the globe.

While the chain is relatively saturated in terms of beer sales, there is room to grow in the cocktail category. Since the chain introduced a Specialty Cocktail menu in 2005, sales of liquor and cocktails in particular have increased with each iteration of the menu, to reach an overall 5 percent sales increase since 2006, according to Tracy Finklang, corporate beverage manager for Old Chicago.  

It makes sense, then, that the recent menu overhaul would include the beverage category. Among the newcomers here are three new mojito-inspired drinks, new margaritas based on successful last-summer LTOs, eight classic cocktails, new martinis with interesting garnishes and six signature cocktails. The drinks are meant to eliminate sluggish sellers, create buzz and stay on top of trends, and appeal to the significant others of the bar’s primary demographic: 25–45-year-old men.

“We wanted to appeal to the whole group – men, women and families – with our annually updated beer lists, since beer is our bread and butter,” Finklang said. “But we also want our prime demo to be able to bring their significant others to enjoy cocktails and wines that women generally favor.” 

Many of the offerings have a sense of terroir: For example, the new Stag Stone Sour evokes Kentucky with its inclusion of Red Stag Cherry Bourbon, orange juice and sour mix; the new mojitos conjure a Latin flavor; and the carefully chosen classic cocktails – Harvey Wallbanger and Tom Collins instead of Sidecars or Negroni, which Finklang said are ‘fancier’ than the brand – conjure a specific era. That’s not an accident.

“I am always aware that I am building menus that have to work all over the country,” Finklang said. “Unlike our beer menus, which by force of necessity are regionalized, all of our drinks have to work at all of our stores nationwide, so I do try to provide a variety that will work everywhere while feeling on trend, interesting and even local.”

The payoff

Though the new menu rollout is just a few weeks old, the crew is confident that it will reignite interest in the current market. This is partially because most of the new items have been tested as LTOs during the year. Marketing director Karen Lozano said the company pushes about four of these during the year.

When new menu snafus do happen, Thom said, it usually has to do with the difficulty in pulling customers away from their favorite menu items to try new ones. “Our issues come therefore in not moving enough product through distribution to keep on the menu,” he said.

The only other new item hiccup he could point to had to do with a healthier item rollout.

“The Caprese side salad was the only item that may have been misunderstood,” he said. “By using salad in the title folks expected lettuce, not simple sliced tomatoes and mozzarella. We figured the name was mainstream.”

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